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Fiction Sad

September rolled around and Brian walked out of the shelter into the snow. The sunlight reflected off the icy landscape like laser light. It was a good thing the shelter door faced away from the sun or it would have blinded him – it was painful enough as it was. But then again, the shelter's designers had planned the door's direction very carefully. Of course they did. They planned for everything. Failing to do so for an Arctic shelter would have killed all the occupants in no time.

Brian lowered another light shield over his goggles. The sun would be down in another few weeks, but in the meantime its reflection off the ice would only get brighter. He blinked a couple of times – the brightness still hurt, but he had no more shields to put on. He'd have to make do. He walked the hundred or so yards to the instrument tower, where the measuring devices waited.

Seven feet of instruments for wind speed and direction, temperature, ground motion, sound, and everything the research team could think to measure. The usual things and a few unusual ones. At least the tower still stood upright. The wind occasionally knocked it down, and getting it back upright required one or two other members of the team – Mike, Gillian, Alex, Valerie, or Elisa - to gear up and help him. Which annoyed the hell out of everyone, and no wonder. His teammates had to gear up when then didn't expect to, and Brian had to hang out here waiting for them after radioing for them. It was a definite pain in the ass which he didn't need.

Not this time, thankfully. Brian started gathering the data rods from the instruments. He knew they couldn't run cable through this terrain from the instruments to the shelter so the data would arrive there without him having to make this trip, and they couldn't even construct a wireless transmitter to do the job here because the temperatures wouldn't allow it, so he had to make this damn hike every week. Another pain in the ass, and this one inevitable.

Oh well, no use complaining. He pulled a blank drive out of the pocket in his right glove, pulled the drive out of the temperature gauge where the week's data were stored, pushed the old drive into his left glove pocket and pushed the new one in. The same with the solar detector's drive, the ground motion detector, the sound detector, the wind detector, the...

Where the hell was the radiation detector?

Brian examined its usual location. The thing usually rested in a vertically-oriented socket, so it wouldn't have fallen onto the ground. The socket showed no unusual wear or breakage, so the wind certainly hadn't blown it away. It was working perfectly last week – surely no one had taken it away for repair, and even if someone had, they would have mentioned it to him, wouldn't they? So where the hell was it?

Crap.

Brian flicked on his radio: “This is exterior to shelter. Hey guys, the radiation detector is missing.”

The radio squawked in his earpiece. Mike's voice came on – at least it was the team leader. If someone else had had to fetch him, he would have been extra pissed. Now he'd only be normal-level pissed. “Missing? You sure?”

Brian rolled his eyes, even though there was no one to watch him. “What, you think I'm joking? The socket's empty and the detector's nowhere visible, it's missing.”

“Shit.” Yep, it sounded like normal-level pissed. “All right, give me about 20 minutes and I'll be there. You okay to stick around that long?”

“Oh sure, I'll just read an issue of Playboy or something.”

“Wise ass.” But there was a little chuckle in Mike's voice as he signed off.

Brian settled down to wait. The worst part was that no matter which direction he faced, the sunset reflection off the ice and snow beamed straight into his eyes.

By the time Mike's figure showed itself in the middle distance, the harsh light had triggered a migraine in Brian's head. Well, not a literal migraine, but it felt like one.

Mike marched up to the devices. Brian reflected again about how inhuman these protective outfits made them all look – no eyes, ears, noses, mouths, barely any limbs. What in God's name were they doing up here where they had to disguise themselves as aliens from outer space to survive? Maybe when they got home, when the sun went down and the whole Arctic went dark for six months, they'd find out they really were aliens.

Mike brushed some loose snow off the socket where the radiation detector had been. Still gone. Brian felt a little relief, crazily enough. With the bright sunlight burning into his eyes, he was almost afraid the detector had been there all along and he'd just missed it. Stupid thought.

Mike's voice came through Brian's earpiece. “You've looked all around for the damn thing, of course.”

“Yup.”

“Shit.” Mike stood silent for a moment. Dead still in that thick outfit, like a small mountain of nylon packing stuff. “Okay, let's get back inside and figure this out.” He turned and trudged back toward the shelter.

Brian couldn't move for a second or so. Being still for fifteen minutes had all but frozen his limbs in place. He bent his knees up against the resistance of his outfit, rocked back and forth-

Mike turned, seeing him standing still. A sigh came through Brian's earpiece. “Hang on.” Mike trudged back to Brian, grabbed an arm, and tugged a bit. Brian's feet pulled loose from the icy ground, he staggered a few steps, and his legs began to move, one slow step at a time.

It took him about a half hour to get back to the shelter, freezing cold all the way. Mike stuck with him – not that he was moving very fast himself, but being comparatively fresh, he probably would have reached the shelter ten or twelve minutes quicker. Which is a lot of time to not spend outside in the Arctic, even thoroughly bundled up. Annoyed at the whole circumstance as Brian was, he appreciated Mike's care of him, so much he nearly cried over it.

Until they got to the shelter and peeled off their outfits. At which point Mike turned on Brian and snapped “So where the hell is the detector?”

Brian stood blinking at him for thirty whole seconds, then managed to grunt. “Uhh...”

“Don't just stand there like an idiot! What did you do with the detector?”

Brian saw red. “I didn't do jack shit with the detector, it was gone when I got there!”

“Come off it, detectors don't just get up on their little hand legs and walk away! It was there last week, right?”

“Yeah, but...”

“So what did you do?”

Brian rolled his eyes, and Mike turned redder than he had been. Brian didn't bother to apologize; it wouldn't have done any good, even if he'd felt like apologizing. “What do you think, I pulled it out of the socket and hid it somewhere? If that's what you think, why don't you go look for it?”

Mike stared at him, and a smirk appeared on his face. “You do it.”

Brian couldn't help laughing, a bitter little sound even to his own ears. “You think I didn't do that already while I was waiting for your ass? No sign of it.”

Mike opened his mouth. Closed it again. “Jesus Christ, what the hell are we doing up here anyway? Who needs radiation data at the North Goddam Pole?”

Brian felt his muscles relax a little. It occurred to him he'd been on his feet for close to an hour in the intense Arctic bright chill. He staggered over to one of the padded benches along the main room walls and plopped into it. “Beats me, boss. I'm just sorry we can't gather that data anymore.”

Mike plopped on another bench. “All right, all right. Do you have the rest of the thumb drives?”

“Yeah,” Brian pulled them out of his gloves.

Mike pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, you better hand those over to Gillian and lie down. You must be exhausted. I'll contact Nome and get some instructions.” He lay down on the bench.

Brian hoisted himself to his feet and headed int the computer room to give Gillian the thumb drives. Exhausted didn't even begin to describe it.

Four weeks later, as the sun was setting, Brian went back out to the instrument tower with the new radiation detector.

Boring, boring, boring. He'd brought finger drives back from the tower four separate times and nothing had changed. Gillian told them, over and over, that this week's readings matched last weeks. Brian wondered every last time why they were up here in the first place, but Mike and Gillian and the other three staffers – Alex, Valerie, and Elisa – never said a thing about it, so Brian kept his mouth shut.

At least this time he had something different to do. The new detector had arrived yesterday. Brian expected it a little quicker, but the message from Mike to Nome took forever – magnetic interference or something. The message from Nome to the mainland took a lot less time, but then transporting the detector up to the pole was a huge slog. Oh well, here it was.

Brian got to the tower and squinted in the fading sunlight to spot the finger drives. After putting them in his glove pockets and replacing them, he scanned the tower to find the socket for the new detector. There it was. He pulled out the new detector and pushed it in.

It didn't fit. Too big.

Crap. Crap crap crap.

He spent the next twenty minutes turning the detector this way and that. Nothing worked. His knees stiffened. He did a half-squat, another one, to loosen them up. The detector still didn't fit. One more twist – and the detector fell on the ground.

Crap and double crap, and triple crap.

Long shadows ran all over the frozen ground. Brian poked around in his jacket pockets with thick-gloved fingers and finally came up with a flash light. He flipped the switch.

Nothing.

After six months of burning sunlight he had forgotten to replace the batteries. Who knew he'd need them?

Nothing for it. He hunkered down on his knees and swept the ground all over. No sign of the detector.

Not the way Mike had been lately. He couldn't go back without it. Back and forth he swept with his hands. Nothing. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Mike and Gillian went out two hours later when Brian didn't answer. Into the pitch black, with flashlights sweeping ahead of them. Toward the instrument tower.

Brian on the ground, as stiff as the tower, with the new detector just beyond his fingertips.  

May 08, 2021 02:09

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